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An oral history of Avatar: The Last Airbender: Cast looks back as show celebrates 10th anniversary of finale

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Jul 30, 2018

Avatar: The Last Airbender may have been a cartoon, but the series appealed to adults and kids alike. It introduced us to a world of four nations — Fire, Earth, Water, and Air — where some people, benders, had the ability to control the elements. Only one person, the Avatar, could control all four. The Avatar was reincarnated each time the previous one died, rotating between the nations as a kind of goodwill ambassador who worked to keep the peace. Avatar: The Last Airbender begins at a time in this world's history in which the Avatar has been missing for 100 years, only to be discovered by two young members of the Water Tribe, bickering brother-sister duo Sokka and Katara.

The new Avatar, a 10-year-old boy named Aang, soon sets off on a world-encompassing quest with Sokka and Katara to set things right between the long-warring nations.

The Last Airbender premiered in 2005 and lasted for three seasons. During that time, it explored many different themes in its 61 episodes. While Avatar was humorous and fun, the series also touched on serious topics and didn't shy away from going more in-depth into certain stories and characters. Despite how short-lived the series was, Team Avatar lived in a fleshed-out world with real consequences, one that was diverse in many ways. Avatar Aang and his friends brought peace to their world at the end of the third season when the two-hour, four-part finale episode "Sozin's Comet" aired in 2008.

Since then the story of Aang and the others has continued in comic books and inspired an equally stellar sequel series, The Legend of Korra. July marks 10 years since fans said goodbye to the original series so now seemed like the best time to look back at the animated program that started it all with some of the people who were a part of it.

SYFY WIRE spoke to three voice actors in separate interviews about their experience as part of Avatar: The Last Airbender and what they think of the cartoon's legacy.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AVATAR

"The Boy in the Iceberg" was the very first episode of Avatar. It aired on Nickelodeon in 2005 and introduced us to a wonderful new world. Along the way, we met fascinating characters voiced by a talented cast assembled to bring them all to life.

Dee Bradley Baker (voice of Momo and Appa): Andrea Romano, who was the casting director, knew me from working on other projects. I think mostly from Warner Bros. like Teen Titans and such, where I would do creature work for her. Then I actually just auditioned, I can remember it, in my garage. They sent me a sheet with a drawing of Momo and I think one of Appa and I made some sounds that I thought would work for those renderings and that was it.

Jack De Sena (voice of Sokka): I think I had a regular audition. I was on a Nick live-action show at the time, but I don't think that had anything to do with it. I think I kind of lucked my way into auditioning for it.

Grey Griffin (voice of Azula): I think that they went out to celebrities for a long time. I think they wanted a more high-profile voice actress for Azula, but they couldn't find anybody and then I got to read for it. They said I was one of the only people that didn't yell as the part. I was very contained and quiet because I felt like Azula was just so powerful she didn't need to yell at anybody.

On animated shows, there are different factors that determine if a cast records its lines together. For Avatar, the process varied for its actors, as well.

Sena: Zach [Tyler Eisen] who played Aang was based out of Connecticut so I never recorded with him in person, but I was almost always recording with Mae [Whitman, voice of Katara] and Dante [Basco, voice of Zuko] was usually always in session. Then it would vary from there, but I was always recording with Mae and Dante. Sometimes the full cast or more of the cast, like Jessie Flower was often in there with us which was very cool.

Griffin: I didn't often get to record with the rest of the cast. I did a lot of things on my own like when I had some of those big battles with Katara and went insane and cut all my hair off and fought with Zuzu I was mostly in a booth by myself. I remember crying when I went crazy and when I devolved, my character kind of lost her bearings. I remember sobbing in the booth. It was a really emotional role to play and so well written. I feel so grateful to have been able to play her.

Baker: Most all of the creature voices I did were done in post-production when they were pretty much finished with the animation and they just had a little bit of maybe music and sound effects to add, but that was it. They would send me a video of the episode and I would review that at home and watch that so I had an idea of the creatures that they had kicking around in that particular episode and then I would come in and just create the creatures. Just whatever they liked, whatever they wanted I would make those creatures to picture as we say. I would watch the picture and make the sounds as I saw it.

Normally in most animation you record first and you animate to that, but this was the opposite. It's essentially dubbing where they bring me in at the very end. It was only a couple of episodes where they'd bring me to do that at the original record. I think "Appa's Lost Days" was an original record.

Sena: We were definitely sticking to the script, but there was always a bit of room for playfulness and for my character they would encourage me to play around a little bit, especially if I was like ranting. When we were there in person together, when we had scenes that were everybody in the room or Mae or Jessie, there's just an added freedom or playfulness. It wasn't like we were changing the lines, but we got to play off each other really.

I will say on the other hand, when you're recording separately and you don't get to work off the person, you're really relying on the director to sort of hold the scene in their head and know what they're going to get from each person and our director Andrea Romano is just great at that. You always felt in really good hands. It felt like even if I wasn't getting that back and forth with Zach I knew if I gave enough options, Andrea was holding the scene and it was going to come together right.

Baker: Sometimes they'd bring in the other cast in the post-production process that I'd work with from there and I would record in the booth. I know they did the regular cast recordings as much as they could record them as an ensemble. That's different for every show, but this one we tried to record as an ensemble and I got to say it's really one of the best things I've ever heard as far as a vocal ensemble goes. It was brilliantly cast and brilliantly directed of course by Andrea Romano. You won't hear anything better. It's so darn good.

Sena: We would always record first and then we'd come back after they animated and do ADR [automated dialogue replacement] and this show had a ton of ADR because of all the action sequences. We would come back and ADR for all of the impact noises and I did an awful lot of that because there were a lot of scenes of me making ridiculous flaying sounds. There were character sketches when we started when we were recording the pilot to get the look and feel of the world, but when recording separate there was no animation.

AN EPIC THREE SEASONS

Avatar aired for three seasons on Nick, earning numerous fans, awards, and critical acclaim. It developed a compelling story full of relatable characters that captured the hearts of audiences.

Sena: It was a really fun character to voice and explore. They really did build a lot of range into the character, especially over the course of three seasons I felt like there was a lot of room to explore. I loved playing the sort of would-be leader. There's a sort of fun impetus to Sokka's leadership that there's a third of qualities that are often not going anywhere and it's fun to play the frustration of that character.

In particular, the season three arc of Sokka finding a master and learning swordcraft and acknowledging and owning the fact that he feels less than in some way was a beautiful place to take that character and gave a nice roundness to that full three season arc.

Baker: It's kind of a perfect show, isn't it? The closest thing I can compare it to is Lord of the Rings, where you have romance, you have this epic war, but you also have this levity and comedy as well as heart to it sort of in equal measures so it's not too heavy. It's not too light. There's really enough substance there for anybody who cares for that and it's also just a fun ride.

A lot of superhero shows — and this sort of is a superhero show — a lot of them tend to get kind of humorless and leaden and just sort of overwrought and I don't really feel that this series ever did that. The writing was way too good as well as the directing and everything else. It's really a unique show and the other thing that really stood out to me was personally, I think it's really easy for superhero battles to get monotonous and it always really impressed me how innovative the fight scenes were. No matter what character was fighting, they would always find these interesting new ways for them to utilize these powers that they had and I always was so impressed and entertained by the ingenuity and innovation that they would apply to each character.

The show came to an end with the "Sozin's Comet" arc, which aired July 19, 2008.

Sena: You could feel that it was the end of something. We knew that the show was coming to a close. When you read that script, you know this is a very round definitive ending. We're definitely delivering and finishing the story. So recording that, it definitely felt like the end of something. I started when I was 15. I was probably 20 when we stopped recording. I was in college, a lot had changed, and I spent all this time with iMae and Dante and seeing Jessie grow a bunch and you could feel even then it was like "OK, I had been on a journey here."

I remember we had a big screening for all of us for the finale and we watched the last arc ending as a feature essentially and it was emotional. It was an emotional thing to know it was ending and it was a really exciting thing to know we were ending it so well. I'll sit in a room and watch that last four episodes and it's like 'ok we really told this big ambitious story way more serialized then you're used to with children's television at the time and we are giving you an ending.' I think it's a really satisfying one so it felt really good. It was sad to walk away, but it felt very complete.

Griffin: I don't think I knew that the show was wrapping when it did wrap up. I think it was a surprise to me. I knew my character had kind of reached her arc. I didn't realize that the show was ending so it was kind of a sad surprise, but all good things come to an end and I had fun doing Korra when Korra came.

THE LEGEND LIVES ON

The show remains a favorite even 10 years after saying goodbye. Fans are still enthusiastic about the series and the show's success continues to impact the industry.

Baker: It's really gratifying. It's really fun to run into the fans young and old who still deeply love all of these characters including the creatures. Sometimes I'll see creature cosplay. The most gratifying is to see how excited people get if it ever comes up in a conversation that I worked on that show. To see how much it meant to them, which I totally understand with the brilliant writing and the artistry of that show, is really like nothing else out there.

Avatar Cosplay Momo Appa

Photo via Dee Bradley Baker

Griffin: I was really surprised by how popular the show was. I happened to be at one of those conventions with Tara Strong in Florida and I was signing autographs, but I just had a headshot up. Somebody said 'hey I looked up on the internet that you're Azula' and I said 'oh yea I remember playing that part' and it had already been a few years since I had played it. They were like 'oh my god' and they called people over and they just went crazy hearing about me being Azula. I just had no idea how popular the character was... I've really enjoyed meeting the fans and quoting the lines and I've made red bracelets that say "what would Azula do?" on them and it's just fun being evil.

Baker: Once a show like that touches you, it really doesn't let go. That's one thing I've seen and once you're on a show that has a ton of creative storytelling, other shows emulate that and I can definitely tell just from the shows that I work on, there are shows that would not be doing what they're doing if it wasn't for Avatar. There's a new show I'm starting on right now that is clearly very much emulating what Avatar did and it's a different world but it's clear the impact and the influence that it's had on other shows.

Sena: I adore how ambitious of a story we were telling. That we were challenging the kid audience element. I love that we were challenging kids with a serialized story with big scenes and really interesting ideas and then no surprise at all that it crossed over and we were able to find an audience of all ages. I was in college when it started airing I think, airing my freshman year of college. It was a very common occurrence to be at a party and have a friend pull me aside and go 'I'm not telling anyone else about this, but I've been watching your cartoon and it's really, really good.' There was a moment of oh this is a kid show and then slowly seeing the world realize there's something here. There's a real depth to the story. The world building and the willingness to explore interesting and exciting themes, it's no shock whatsoever that it has resonated with such a big audience and that it's still something people are talking about because there's so much in there that it comes up a lot. There's always a good example from Avatar.

Griffin: I'm just so touched that it means so much to the fans and I'm happy to be their villain, their Azula, and some day I'm going to sit down and watch the entire series because I have not done that and people are so crestfallen when they hear that. When I'm at a convention, when people hear that, their whole face falls. The voice actress for Ty Lee, Olivia Hack, and I were just talking about how we still haven't seen the series and it's terrible, even though I feel like Azula and Ty Lee are off on some island together having a wonderfully satisfying relationship.

Baker: To see how much kids love this show and how fun it is to go back into it, it really just struck me what a unique show it was. It's something that I would binge watch whether I was involved with it or not. I may be on another show or two that's as good. I really don't think I'll be on a show that's any better than what Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Brian [Konietzko] came up with with Avatar and then Legend of Korra, which was kind of the next evolution of their creative abilities there. They're both just knockout shows and I'm so glad to have been a part of something like that. I'm really grateful in particular just to see how much it meant to people. It means a lot to me.